As the country observes the federal holiday named in King’s honor, it seems that schools are increasingly coming under sharp criticism from educators and activists for their approach to teaching King’s life. Some question a sanitized teaching of the black civil-rights movement, its leaders, and other struggles for social justice that denies students an accurate and complete account of history. These debates are complicated by the inherent professional dangers in teaching through a social-justice lens.
In her book Language, Culture, and Teaching, the multicultural educator and author Sonia Nieto writes that schools in attempting to make King “palatable to the mainstream … have made [him] a milquetoast.” Nieto notes that it is rare for teachers to explore King’s “consistent opposition to the Vietnam War [and rebuke] of unbridled capitalism,” ignoring the breadth of his protests. What’s more, this tendency to romanticize history and heroism impairs Americans’ ability to confront racial injustices today, says the social-justice activist Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Everybody gets to celebrate the march on Washington, everybody gets to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King,” Stevenson told the nonprofit news organization The Marshall Project last year, and “no one is accountable for all of the resistance to civil rights, all of the damage that was done by segregation.”
When it comes to King and the treatment of social justice in classrooms, textbooks and materials are frequently lacking, with important parts of history sandwiched into commemorative months for racial and ethnic groups—Black History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month, for example. This and other factors make it nearly impossible for students to grapple with and think critically about King the man, not the myth, says Greg E. Carr, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. “King warned us about the threats of racism, materialism, and militarism. This country doesn’t want to hear that,” Carr asserts. Instead, King is presented as a one-dimensional champion of racial unity, he said, and the better part of his words and actions are edited out “to make him fit that surreal representation.”
Social-justice teaching has its philosophical roots in educating students for a more just and equitable world. Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice describes classrooms “where students and teachers gain glimpses of the kind of society we could live in and where students learn the academic and critical skills needed to make it a reality.”
The best way for teachers to educate students on King is to let him and his colleagues speak for themselves, Carr says. The civil-rights movement coincided with the rapid growth of televisions in American homes. In 1950, 9 percent of U.S. households had a television set; by 1960, TV ownership had increased almost tenfold to 87 percent. For educators, this translates into a treasure trove of primary sources for students, with “hours and hours of [King’s] speeches, statements, and actions … to get a sense of the fullness of his ideas.” Among Carr’s favorites are the Pacifica Radio Archives and the 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record...Montgomery to Memphis with original footage of civil rights actions. Carr also relies on Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project—seven volumes of letters, speeches, church sermons, and published and unpublished writings. “The best way to teach King is to [study] the black people who produced him, who surrounded him, who continued his work.”